Dreaming Something Real: A Review of Music of the Swamp by Lewis Nordan

IMG_6592“Probably the real self is in fact the invented self fully accepted.”  That’s Lewis Nordan’s justification for declaring that his outrageous, out-sized fiction is actually memoir.  He created himself through imagining a different past, different circumstances, and a different father than the disappointing realities he knew as a child growing up in Itta Bena, Mississippi.  And because he so fully entered the fiction he wrote, he found in it a lasting reality.

I discovered Lewis Nordan earlier this year when I read Wolf Whistle, his wild (and creepily humorous) take on the Emmett Till murder which happened not far away from his Mississippi home.  What I loved about Nordan was his ear for dialogue, his willingness to risk difficult perspectives (e.g. narrators that included violent racists and Till’s dislocated eye), and his freedom.  All with a strong sense of place.

51ETxQY6ioL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_I knocked around Nordan’s Mississippi this summer.  Nordan himself died in 2012, but I brought with me Music of the Swamp, his loosely-constructed narrative about a boy named Sugar Mecklin with a childhood much like his own.  It’s not as exuberant as Wolf Whistle.  There’s a lot of his personal despair spilling into this story.  The book opens with the discovery of a body and includes the father’s judgment on the whole sorry scene, “The Delta is filled up with death.”

Despite that, Sugar emerges as a dreamer, seeing the world as he wants to see it.  Creating a bond with a father who is incapable of returning his affection.  Imagining a more magical world.

One of the key scenes takes place at a Mississippi beach following a hurricane.  Attracted by low hotel rates in the aftermath of the storm, Sugar’s dad tries to woo his mother into a second honeymoon and only reluctantly agrees to take Sugar along.  Amidst the wreckage and obvious ugliness, the family struggles to make the vacation work.  And even though it doesn’t, you can’t help but admire the effort.

My edition of the book has an essay at the end entitled “The Invention of Sugar: An Essay about Life in Fiction—and Vice Versa.”  I was very glad to have this glimpse into Nordan’s process.  It’s here that he shares his life-long struggle to fully accept his invented self.  And it’s here he finds some healing.

“Always my stepfather will have been a housepainter and always, for one frightening moment in the Snack Shop on North State Street in Jackson, Mississippi, he will have a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Michigan, and always my stepfather will have been a man who had a stepson who became a literary person and tried to give order to chaos, first by stretching history’s boundaries to include what never happened, and then by shrinking them to acknowledge the lie, and then to say, with a conflicted heart, that since the non historical was for a while historical then it too, in some way, must be included within history’s elastic frame.” (209)

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Lewis Nordan

Fiction finds a way to include the end to our restless longings within the structure of time and in that way becomes our reality.  This is how I view the Christian narrative of the Bible.  Within the despair and suffering of the world, there is another reality made clear by a human life emerging from a long narrative of a wild and unruly people and exposing the ultimate victory of love.  The end of our desire appearing in the middle of the story, as it were, challenging us to see the world as it really is.  Like the beauty of the swamps of Mississippi, it is so easily disregarded.  And yet for sharp-eyed dreamers it is the heartbeat of something enduring and inevitable.

I’m going back to Nordan’s Mississippi, if only in his fiction.  Perhaps Sugar Among the Freaks is next.

Music of the Swamp

by Lewis Nordan

Algonquin Books, 1992

209 pages

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Can We Talk About Sexuality?

41BB69XhR3L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.” (9)  So says Jill Johnson, one of my co-authors of the new book, Living Faithfully: Human Sexuality and The United Methodist Church, just out from Abingdon Press.  But this book may help us to bring our best selves to the discussion.

Living Faithfully is designed to help participants “understand and grapple with various views about the ministry and teaching of The United Methodist Church around human sexuality.”  I’m happy to have been a contributor to this new four-week small group study.  (I got chapter 4.)  A Leader Guide is included with lesson plans for facilitating the study.

The book includes biblical and theological reflections along with information on United Methodist structure and diverse perspectives.  You’ll learn about the Commission on a Way Forward and where the denominational discernment is moving in the next few years.

“In every family there are subjects that seem to bring out the worst in us when we discuss them.  For United Methodists, that topic is currently homosexuality.”

I come to a close in my chapter with the following thought: “Full inclusion of LGBTQ persons and diversity of biblical interpretation are important to explore.  But we may not be able to go far in the conversation unless we first have spirits formed by Christian community and the disciplines of that community.  Without that soil to grow in, our debates will look suspiciously like those that dominate our divided nation.” (82)

I pray this book helps to understand an important issue, but more so, I hope it brings people together for deep and fruitful growth as beloved community.

Available now from Abingdon Press, Amazon, and other fine purveyors of United Methodist resources.

 

Carson’s Place – My Interview with Nick Norwood Continues – part 2 of 3

In the first part of my interview with Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, we talked about the universal themes of McCullers’ writing.  Today we talk about the strong sense of place in her work and the way Columbus, Georgia, her hometown, informs it.

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The Eagle and Phoenix Mill in Columbus, GA

So we think of Carson McCullers as a writer of the heart but she also has this strong sense of place. How do you see this having lived here a long time? How does Columbus fit into her work?

I once tried to write fiction when I was at the University of North Texas. I also loved poetry but one of the things I noticed about writing fiction is that I could not take myself seriously writing, creating characters who didn’t speak with a Southern accent. For better or worse my characters were gonna have to be Southerners because that was the only way that I could have them speak in what I considered to be an authentic way.  It occurs to me that that is partly where Carson is coming from, not just in terms of how characters speak but how they act, and what they eat and all the letters and all of those things — that was her foundation.

You can find all of these different writers who make this remark about your best stuff comes from your childhood. I believe that’s true, I really do. It’s been true in my life as a writer and I believe that it’s true and this is the place where she grew up so it’s the source for all her stuff. The other thing is that she saw firsthand the situation of the poor millworker.  So she had that firsthand experience of poverty and that sort of hard life and what it does for instance to race relations.  These people are on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder for white people and so they’ve got to have somebody that they feel is beneath them—that’s African-Americans.  So you can imagine what it’s like being an African-American.  So I think all of that stuff informs her work.

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Nick Norwood

You can also find other things in her work where you realize, once you know about her life, “Ah, that had to have been partly where she gained the insight.”  For instance, in her second book, [Reflections in a Golden Eye], we have this homosexual army officer and that was one of the things that really angered people [about the book] here in Columbus. One of her best friends was Edwin Peacock, who was a gay soldier here, and through him she met other gay soldiers.  This is this thing that people didn’t want to see, didn’t want to recognize, wanted to pretend it didn’t happen. It was dangerous for someone like Edwin Peacock to have someone know this about him but Carson knew it.

So you can find things in her work all the time that show you: “Oh, she had the real experience that she had in Georgia that helped give her the insight about this.” Carson was able to see in her own little town things that relate to the human condition in general.  It was like all great writers who end up being able to connect with other people: [through] experiences they have growing up, they’re able to see people beyond just the way that their neighbors try to see them.

They’re both insiders and outsiders. She grew up Lula Carson; that’s about as Southern as you can get and she loved Southern food.  if you’ve ever heard her voice—I have people from Columbus tell me, that’s not just a Georgia accent that’s a Columbus accent that you hear there.

So she’s an insider but on the other hand she was an outsider and was shunned by a lot of people because she was ‘weird.’  That’s the term that they always used to refer to her from the beginning.  She didn’t dress right; she was much more interested in the society of books than she was with society of her neighbors. She was just a young person who remained aloof and was mocked and didn’t care, which rural people do not like. So she was an outsider which allowed her to observe them more objectively than most people who are from a place are able to do.  That’s where Columbus shows up in her work.  She was able to see, in Columbus, so many different facets of the human experience in this one place.

Maybe that has something to do with the particular place because even though it’s a relatively small town, it was about 40,000 when she was growing up, it’s kind of interesting the number of people from different walks of life, to use that cliché, but also from different geographic regions that this place brings together.  Fort Benning is huge and when you start reading about the history of the army in the 20th century, all the major players came through this place.

Eisenhower was the commandant at one point. Rusty Calley was tried here [for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam] and then spent most of the rest of his life living in this town. My partner lives a few blocks from where Omar Bradley had lived around the corner from her house.  Still, as a teacher at Columbus State, I teach students who come from all over the country and even from different parts of the world because of Fort Benning.  Then there’s the Coca-cola connection and the cotton mills that drew in all of this industry. So it was, in a way, a good place to soak up humanity.

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Nick Norwood’s poetry in an installation at the Eagle and Pheonix Mill in Columbus

I read your piece about the millworkers for Library of America.  Even though she’s got those characters like Jake Blount and Dr. Copeland who are really engaged in thinking about political realities and economics, I’ve never really thought of her as having that side developed.  Of course, she was only 19 when she wrote it but you see that she had a real feel for it.

The other things that she wrote about are more widely discussed.  They’ve become part of this prominent national conversation that we’re having about, take for instance, sexual orientation.  At [a recent] international conference, there was a lot of talk about that.  In fact, they had an open call for proposals for papers and then, based on the proposals that they got, they came up with the sessions because there were so many people writing about like things.  They had to have two sessions for gender and sexuality cause there were so many people who wanted to write about that aspect of her work.  Not one paper on her writing about the working class, not one.

That’s partly because, McCullers tends to attract a certain type of scholar—people who are interested in certain kind of things.  People who are attracted to writing about the working class and so forth have more often gone to other writers.  But I think that’s a mistake that you overlook that aspect of her work because it is prominent and one of her major characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is Jake.  That’s what he’s all about.  If you read her author’s outline where she’s describing the town, clearly it was a big part of what she was thinking about and writing about.  Setting the story in a town like this with the mill culture and poor and how the mill workers all had that look of loneliness and sadness.  It’s a big part of her work that is currently being overlooked, but with the popularity of J.D. Vance’s book, [Hillbilly Elegy], because of this recent election, maybe more people will consider that aspect of it.

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Alex hanging out with Carson McCullers

She talks in one of her essays about homesickness being the American disease—we’re always looking for a home. 

“Loneliness: An American Malady” is the title of the piece.

How does that play out with Columbus because after she left she never really returned to live?

She’s sort of like James Joyce—left and never wanted to live there again but never wrote about anything else. It’s a cliché, again, this love-hate relationship, but, especially if you’re as sensitive a person as Carson McCullers was and you’re exposed to this place at that most impressionable time in your life, its going to be a big part of you.  At the time same time, as Thomas Wolfe says, you can never go home again.  It’s never going to be the same.

Even though I think she was grandstanding a little bit when she said, “I have to return home periodically to renew my sense of horror,” she really was horrified by what went on here—the poverty, the race relations, and all of those things.  You can’t get away from it and on the other hand you can’t return to it.

But what she says in that essay about the particular American version of loneliness, (and I’ve flown this by people from other countries to see if they would say “Well, that’s not true.  We have the same thing” and no one’s really called me on that), her argument is basically that we don’t have the class ties that the European countries have and that long history.  I was just in Italy and you study all of this Roman history and realize even that was built on earlier histories.  You have these traditions that have been going on for thousands of years.  We don’t have that here, so to be disconnected here is to really be disconnected.

One of the interesting things that she says is that writers and artists have often formed themselves into schools.  They branch out from the mainstream but they’re not doing it alone, They have other people similar.

She says more often what happens in America is that writers and artists branch out by themselves.  They launch themselves out into outer space alone. Maybe it’s that pioneering spirit in them.  Those are her arguments for why Americans maybe experience spiritual isolation, if not in fact, in a more intense way, at least in a unique way.

It is a strange thing in the case of somebody like Carson but one of the things to me that shows that she really did feel a sort of homesickness is when she talks about food and holidays and the trees.  You can tell that she misses those things intensely.

She was asked by Holiday magazine to write a piece on the South and they couldn’t publish it.  She could only be honest, so it was not just talking about good, happy things, which is what they wanted—the things that you love about Columbus.  She couldn’t do it without also talking about the things that are not good, about the natives’ racism and other things.  That’s one of the things that has estranged her from a lot of people in Columbus especially during her lifetime and among people who were still alive in the decades after her death.  She exposed the town’s dirty laundry and they think that’s unforgivable.

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Segment 3 of this interview

The Spiritual Isolation of Carson McCullers – An Interview with Nick Norwood – part 1 of 3

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Nick Norwood in front of a painting of Carson McCullers in Columbus, GA

So, I’ve got a thing for Carson McCullers.  Anybody who read this blog through the McCullers-palooza that was her 100th birthday celebration in February will know that this Southern writer speaks to me.  The characters that she introduced us to in such classics as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Member of the Wedding, and The Ballad of Sad Cafe are indelible, all afflicted with the same malady – the longing for love and connection.  It’s the same theme that some of our greatest Christian writers (Augustine, Julian of Norwich) have dealt with.

Nick Norwood, who is, among other things, the director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University, calls this theme ‘spiritual isolation.’

On my current renewal leave, I stopped by Columbus, Georgia at the childhood home of McCullers, who was born Lula Carson Smith.  Sitting in the kitchen of that house where a young Carson produced her earliest works using the pocket doors for a curtain and her siblings as actors, I got to spend a great hour with Nick, who is also an accomplished poet and Professor of Creative Writing at CSU.

In the three parts of this interview we talk McCuller’s sense of place in writing, her ongoing influence, and what it’s like being a Southern poet.

37380So if you had to say why people should still be interested in Carson McCullers what would you say?

Well, I think one of the things is that Carson McCullers developed universal themes.  To me that’s why she’s a writer with real staying power.  She took on, as a major theme, what she refers to as spiritual isolation.  People have used other terms for it. The term ‘loneliness’ has gotten attached to her, mostly I think because of the title of that first novel, [The Heart is a Lonely Hunter], but also because that’s the theme that she continued to return to in all her major works.

She’s one of those writers who’s going to speak to people no matter where they’re from or what age they live in. To me, here’s proof of that: Why would people in France, in Italy, in China, in Japan, all relate to her so strongly if it weren’t for the fact that she’s developing something universal.  Not only that but she’s doing it in a unique way, in a fresh way. To me, what she does with John Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, that’s a piece of genius.  So to me that’s the main reason.

A lot has been said recently about how a lot of the social issues that she dealt with in her books are now at the forefront of some national conversations—things that have to deal with sexual orientation, gender, race, all those things.  Sarah Schulman, a novelist and lesbian rights activist, wrote a really interesting piece that was published in The New Yorker last year.  She makes the argument that now is the time for writers to be returning to Carson McCullers. And the specific reason she said was that there is now this ongoing debate about white writers writing about people who are not like themselves, people of color for instance.  It’s gotten kind of contentious and [Schulman] is very sensitive to that and doesn’t dismiss it at all but says,  “Still, I want to be able to write about the full human spectrum, so how do I do it?”

She notes that Carson McCullers does it and she quotes the famous review by Richard Wright of Carson’s first book: “She’s the first white writer to be able to write about black characters with as much understanding and sympathy as she does her white characters.”  So, there’s one reason why people should be reading her now.  But to me the main reason is that she wrote about universal things that are still as important as they were when she wrote them.

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The Smith-McCullers House in Columbus, GA

What makes it spiritual isolation? I like that term for it.

There is literally being physically, if you will, isolated but what’s more important to her is this idea that we all feel at times that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us. That’s why I think The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is so brilliant because we have this character, John Singer, who is an exemplary human being and really is sensitive to other people.  And because he doesn’t speak, it makes people think that, not only is he a good listener, but he understands them.  Then, of course, the big revelation is: no, he doesn’t.

My partner is also a colleague of mine.  She teaches art and she taught The Heart is a Lonely Hunter this past year too.  A lot of us did because of the [100th anniversary] celebration.  We argued about this character of Antonapoulos.  She thinks that John Singer’s devotion to Antonapoulos is ridiculous and unbelievable.  I said, “No, I think the reason that she had to do it that way is to show how strong is this desire to have somebody to connect to.”

Antonapoulos is the only person Singer knows for one thing.  There’s the practical issue that Antonapoulos understands sign language.   He’s also a mute so he can relate to Singer and it just helps her develop the theme.  So when she talks about spiritual isolation it’s this idea that we’re alone and nobody completely understands us.  That is pretty bleak but that is the situation of all humans.  Maybe it’s not always that way.  Maybe there’s some temporary relief from that situation but that is the basic situation.

So, you have Singer, the most exemplary lover, and even he has his own isolation. 

When she has him write the letter to Antonapoulos it is revealed to us that he doesn’t know these other characters who come to him with their problems. He’s not sure what they’re talking about.  I love it when he says, about Jake, “He thinks that we have a secret together but I do not know what it is.” But all of this is prefaced by the fact that he’s writing this letter to Antonapoulos whom he knows is not able to read.

 

Nick Norwood is the author of The Soft Blare (2003), A Palace for the Heart (2004), and Gravel and Hawk (2012), winner of the Hollis Summers Prize.  

Segment 2

God and Arson: My interview with Monica Hesse concludes – part 3 of 3

Hesse, MonicaIn previous segments of this interview, I talked with Monica Hesse, author of American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, about her experience of the Eastern Shore and her thoughts about what the 2012-2013 arsons have to say about rural America in general.  Today we conclude with some thoughts about the religious life of the Shore and her next project.

I was curious about your sense about religious life on the Shore and the role that churches might have played in the story.

I interviewed several ministers and a few of them appear in the book. It was moving to me to hear about, Jon Woodburn, who ministered to 3 churches in Accomack in a circuit and one of them was lit on fire and the flames were discovered on Ash Wednesday.  He was wonderful to talk to.  You discover these scorch marks and then it’s Ash Wednesday and then you have a service.  What do you talk about?

He said, “We talked about how it would’ve been so easy for the church to burn down but it didn’t and what comfort we could take from the fact that it didn’t and that we were still here and we were still together.”

I talked to ministers who would talk about finding in their hearts and their congregations finding it in their hearts to pray for the arsonist thinking anyone who is doing this must be very troubled.  So it seems to me at least that the people who were religious were able to take great comfort in an act that seemed so completely senseless. I’m not saying that faith gave the actions meaning but I’m saying that it seems like faith was giving people an opportunity to try to make sense of this chaos or to try to look at the chaos in ways beyond fear.

Then I also talked to folks who were from different strains, who maybe had more literal interpretations of the Bible, who thought that this was like a literal apocalypse, that these were literal signs that the world might be coming to an end or there might be some larger forces.  So it would make sense that faith leaders were able to bring levels of comfort and these levels of comfort were sorely needed in the community at the time.

18682748So what’s next for you? 

Actually, this is my first non-fiction book but I also write fiction.  This book came out the same day that I had a fiction deadline for another novel.  So I just turned in the manuscript for the novel.

I’d love to do another non-fiction book but the thing that makes non-fiction so difficult for me at least is that you really have to find exactly the right story because the story is all you have.  You can’t embellish or make anything up in it so my agent has been asking what I’m going to write about next and it’s hard because I know, whatever I choose, I’m going to have to live with for several years and I’m going to have to feel like it has that weight to carry me through.

Right. So is it more Young Adult fiction or is it adult fiction now?

No, it’s YA fiction but the book that I had written before this is historical fiction set in WWII and this is another in that genre. It’s another historical fiction set in the war.

The Relentless Storytelling of Philipp Meyer: A Review of American Rust

 

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Photo by Jan Senderek via Unsplash

Philipp Meyer is a relentless storyteller.  By the time he gets through with you, you will have a deep immersion in the place where the story happens and will have met characters who are anything but passive.  They are doers who fight and scrape against an unjust world.  They make many mistakes, some dreadful, but they are always in motion, like the country itself.

I first discovered Meyer through his second novel, The Son, which is an epic multi-generational tale of Texas.  It was all the things I like in a book – strong storyline, unexpected turns, complex characters, evocative descriptions of the landscape that help you feel like you are there, and…naturally…about Texas.  I fell for Pauline Jiles’ News of the World for the same reason.  Actually, what I’m saying is – you write a book about Texas and I’m gonna read it.

511is2qnAKLAmerican Rust is Meyer’s earlier work and it is set in western Pennsylvania where the late-twentieth century has turned the steel industry into a shadow of its former self.  The characters are all dealing with confusion and grief that they can’t quite name, but which has a lot to do with the decline they see all around them.

The story centers on two unlikely friends, Isaac and Poe, who set off to leave town and end up enmeshed in an act of violence that haunts the rest of the book.  Isaac is a brilliant, socially-awkward young man who has watched his sister go off to Yale, his mother commit suicide, and his handicapped father slip into resignation.  His answer to the stagnation he feels is to steal $4000 from the old man and try to run off to California.

Poe is a former high school football star who can’t find a living doing anything more than building landfills.   People see good in him, but he undercuts himself with a ferocious temper and impulsive behavior.

Meyer’s great gift as a writer is to bring a place and its people to life.  In this book he goes a little bit overboard with the details of the steel industry decline, giving the story a didactic feel.  He shows more than tells in The Son and that makes it a better book.  (Plus, did I mention that that book is about Texas?)  But he is a visceral writer with a strong sense of pacing.

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Philip Meyer

In addition, here he uses multiple points of view effectively, putting us into the heads of the six main characters, increasing the empathy and tragedy.  His stream-of-consciouness sections are among his best, bringing honesty and even humor to his characters.

Meyer has been compared to Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway.  That’s good company.  As Mark Athitakis noted in our discussion of Midwestern literature earlier this year, Meyer is doing what a good contemporary novelist should do – he’s complicating the landscape, honoring its natural and human beauty, and allowing human frailty its place.

Love and Arson on the Eastern Shore: A Review of American Fire

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_It’s in the nature of small towns and isolated places to believe they’re special.  Recently I drove through Ayden, North Carolina and found a historical marker revealing that President Washington had spent the night in 1791…10 miles east.  It was something.

So when the Eastern Shore of Virginia showed up in the New York Times Book Review this summer, a lot of us ran out to get the book that put us there: American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse.

It’s a gaudy title that stretches ambitiously.  Those of us who lived through it knew that the spree of 60-something fires that were set during a period from November 2012 through April 2013 constituted a major local story.  But Hesse believed that there was a larger story to be told.  The arson attacks were not just our tale; they were an American one.

“America: the way it’s disappointing sometimes, the way it’s never what it used to be,” Hesse says in the preface.  “But it also involved love.”  And on those two grand themes, the book is built.

Of course, we locals will get hung up on the small things.  We capitalize the Shore when we write about it; American Fire doesn’t.  It’s Pungoteague, not Puncoteague.  Northampton has one ‘h’ in the middle.  There, I got it out of my system.  Those little things won’t bother the general reader.

What those readers will see is a well-researched book with propulsive writing in the vein of Michael Lewis (Moneyball) and Laura Hillenbrand (Unbroken).  Hesse has a knack for structuring her story for maximum effect, doling out details selectively in a way that builds suspense and makes you want to know more.  She doesn’t sink into speculation or make a case for sympathy, but keeps the reader at the level of the action.

Though there are elements that make this a true crime genre book, the question here is never ‘whodunit.’  Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick done it and we know that from almost the very beginning.  What Hesse wants to explore is their relationship, what the fires did to the county, what they revealed about the particular national moment.

“Big-name crimes have a way of becoming big name not only because of the crimes themselves but because of the story they tell about the country at the moment,” Hesse reports.  “And now here were the arsons, happening in the type of rural environment that had been figuratively burning down for several decades, whether in the midwestern Rust Belt or the southern Bible Belt, or the hills of Appalachia.” (60-61)

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Monica Hesse

Hesse takes the long view of things.  She spent time with Miles Barnes and the late Kirk Mariner, our local fonts of historical perspective.  She accurately describes the effect of the arrival of the railroads here in the 1880s, the turn-of-the-century boom and the end-of-the-century bust that moved the counties of the Shore into the wealthiest of rural locales and then reduced them to among the poorest.

She is struck, as are the law officers who come from “across the Bay” to help out with the investigation, by the emptiness of the landscape and the remoteness of the buildings that are burned.  Hesse describes the assumption of the police that someone would eventually see something that would help break the case.  Ron Tunkel, one of the criminal profilers, eventually realizes,“There’s nobody out here at night…Suddenly, it seemed completely plausible to him that someone could light seventy or eighty fires without anyone else seeing.” (129)

Living here, the emptiness becomes less defining over time.  We may live in a sparsely populated area, but we know the population and it becomes our community.  But the struggles that Hesse describes – the poverty, substance abuse, economic decline, etc. – are easily seen, too.

The joy of Hesse’s book is that the characters are vividly portrayed.  We not only get a rich portrait of Charlie and Tonya, but also the police officers, lawyers, and fire fighters who play big roles in the story.  She clearly enjoyed getting to know them, especially the Tasley fire crew with whom she played pool and ate pizza, and she gives them life.

IMG_1899She puts great symbolic weight on the now-defunct establishment known as Shuckers – the Onancock bar where Charlie and Tonya met and dreamed of getting married.  She chronicles its troubles, its demise, and the revival of the site as the Salty Dog and then The Fair Grounds.  She calls it “a palimpsest of Eastern Shore history, on a slab of a parking lot with weeds sprouting through fractures in the concrete.” (230)  Like a palimpsest, it is written over with new stories as the old stories remain beneath.

That’s her closing hope for places like Accomack County.  “Maybe rural America isn’t dying so much as it’s Shucker-ing: adjusting, adapting, becoming something new, getting a new outdoor sign and adding jalapeño hush puppies to the menu.  I’d like to think that.” (232)

I’ve got bigger hopes for the Shore than jalapeño hush puppies.  I tend to think that rural America gets seen as the place that got left behind when America, the concept, moved on.  But places like this may just be lying fallow until the next chapter of their lives will be written.  And they may be places of innovation and renewal as they have been in the past.

Silicon Valley and the urban outposts of the Information Age economy are doing well and have no need to question the engine that powers them.  Places like the Shore are doing deep soul-searching around the basic questions of who we are and what we ought to be.  They are prone to slip into despair or burst into occasional flame, but they are also being pushed to the essence of what we are here for.  And as in a burned-over field, new sprouts will emerge.

As for the book – it’s terrific.  Go read it and check out my interview with Monica Hesse.

Why Books Will Win

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photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov via Unsplash

I’m making a wager that books will lead us to the future.

Heartlands came about as a desire to understand the present age, particularly from the perspective of rural America and rural church ministry.  In the beginning I was trying to figure out why the place where I live seemed suddenly so strange to me.  Things had shifted, and not just because of an unexpected outcome to the presidential election.  We had been shifting for some time and no politician could claim credit for creating the Great Divide.

What we lost was texture.  Red and blue became easy stand-ins for the complexities of our culture and we let the color labels define us.  We latched onto them as identity markers.  Who we are, in all our contradictions and quirks, was less interesting than a convenient narrative that prevented us from observing and thinking deeply.

As I wrote in a piece for Topology magazine, “Rural is Plural,” there was a tendency in some writers from the coastal cities that sounded like they were writing off the heartland.  The reason Heartlands is plural is because there is diversity here, too, that is unrecognized.  So I began to search for the lens and the language that would help me bring it to sight and voice.

The surprising thing is that literature has become one of the most useful tools in that search.  You know—books.  Stories have the capacity to carry so much more freight than other forms of communication.  Good stories don’t force the world into neat categories and simple morals.  Characters in a book should always be able to surprise us because, like real human beings, that have complex motivations that they don’t always understand.  That’s certainly the case for biblical characters.

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photo by Lysander Yuen via Unsplash

So the jaunts this blog has taken into books and interviews with authors like Alix Hawley, Trudy Hale, and Arlie Russell Hochschild, and with the photographer Michael Mergen, have ended up not being diversions but central to the whole project.  Perhaps the best language for an age that has destroyed truth is the vernacular of art, which is groping, not desperately, but confidently in search of new truth.  It’s obvious that the old vehicles have broken down—science, politics, and the like.  But the arts still sparkle – underfunded as they are.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice” — T.S. Eliot

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice,” T.S. Eliot says in ‘Little Gidding.’  So I’ll keep reading and writing, awaiting another voice.  Literature may not be the fluff we have presumed it to be.  It may the gateway to what comes next.

Serving Time in Alabama: A Review of Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

IMG_3258Breathe in rural Alabama circa 1925.  Take deep breaths, “great lungfuls of the scent-tinged air—grass and cornstalks and peanut plants, mulch and dung and mule hide” (159).  Feel the heat of July.  “This low sun turns every lick of water to steam, even the fresh-pumped drinks in our mess-issued bottles.  The sun bakes those metal canteens, boiling the liquid inside, and we chase our thirst with water so hot it burns our tongues” (167).

Are you here yet?  Good.  Settle in.  There’s a long prison sentence to serve.  Regrets aplenty to mull over.  Deaths to mourn: for an electrocuted man, for future children unborn.  Righteous indignation over injustices on simmer: for black men leased out by the state to work in deadly coal mines, for prisoners maimed and abused.

But even in the swelter there are graces aplenty.  A wrench of warblers will chirp outside the window.  A hound named Maggie will curl against your legs in the night when you are reduced to sleeping on the floor of an abandoned cottage.  Canned peaches spiced with clove and cinnamon will appear on your table.  There is beauty here and, beyond any expectation, a resilient capacity for tenderness.

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_In Work Like Any Other, Virginia Reeves has written a gentle debut novel about difficult things.  It is a small novel in that it brings us into close proximity with one man, Roscoe T. Martin, and the incident that leads to his long incarceration at Kilby Prison.  A man fascinated with the newfound power of electrification, Martin tries to wire his way out of the dark cloud that is engulfing his marriage and the farm that he has been given by his father-in-law.

With the help of Wilson, an African-American man who has been faithfully working the property for years, Martin taps into the new Alabama Power lines crossing the property, an act, that despite its illegality, brings light to the house, productivity to the thresher, and new life to his previously distant wife, Marie, and their young son, Gerald.  When a power company worker stumbles upon the tap line and is electrocuted, Martin and Wilson are sent away.  Martin to Kilby and Wilson to the coal mines as a leased-out prisoner.

Roscoe’s perspective dominates the central part of the book as he deals with the indignities of prison life and the isolation from his wife and son.  Marie doesn’t respond to his letters or visit him, and we, along with Roscoe, aren’t sure why, until her voice finally appears some chapters into his prison term.

Time shifts as Reeves remembers how their relationship began.  Then, as his physical condition deteriorates, a young version of Marie begins to appear as an apparition that offers him unreliable counsel.  He worries as well about Wilson’s fate.  When he is finally released he is a broken man, sent home to try and uncover a future.

Marie’s sense of moral outrage at Roscoe’s act seems a bit overblown and her late 20th century sensibilities about race relations seem a little anachronistic.  She is not as fully-drawn as Roscoe, but the sections where we do get a chance to glimpse her inner life are among the best-written parts of this book.  To wit, this passage which captures the conflict she is feeling:

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Virginia Reeves, photo by Suzanne Koett

Marie missed her father.  She missed Roscoe, too, but only in isolated scenes—there along the Coosa River where they would walk, an afternoon here in the farmhouse in their shared bed, the kitchen of their village house, infant Gerald in his arms.  When she thought of him whole, though, she cringed.  As a whole man—full up of his past and his choices and his actions—she wanted nothing to do with him.  (85)

What is this book about?  The possibility and miracle of love.  The seduction and wonder of technology.  The history of Alabama prisons.  The social divisions and structures that infest our closest relationships.  The things that break us down and the hope that binds us together.  The deep longings that assure our endurance.  The mad ways marriage partners wound one another and the way reconciliation works and doesn’t between them.

Yes, all that.  But it is as much about the earthy fragrance and ambient noises of Alabama.  That which transcends is as particular and miraculous as a breath of mulch and dung and mule hide.  Reeves takes us there.

(And shout out to Deborah Lewis for sending me here, to this book.)

Work Like Any Other: A Novel

by Virginia Reeves

Scribner, 2016

262 pages

Talking to Anarchists – An interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – part 3 of 3

By now you know the story, if you’ve been following since Part 1: Blue state sociologist goes to oil patch Louisiana to try and understand the environment and the people of this Red state.  Writes Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  Talks with an Eastern Shore preacher about what she learned.  In Part 3 of this interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild we explore the possibilities of bridging the Great Divide.

hochschild_arlie_russell_paige_parsonsYou say liberals have their own deep story, just like the folks that you were talking to there.  And one of the things that I think about in terms of the Church is how–especially in the ’80s when the evangelical Christian movement became a real political movement–how our ‘deep story’ and the Christian faith felt hijacked to me.  I’m sure the folks in the evangelical wing felt the same about some of the liberal Christianity that came before and has been around since, too.  So, is there potential for stories to link up?  I don’t hope for a common narrative out of this, but I just wonder if there’s a way.  I mean, the fishing trip [discussed in part 2] sounds like a great way to do that.  You start building new narratives just by being in each other’s presence.

Yeah, and to see a search for common ground.  Check out the Bridge Alliance.  It is an umbrella group of some 70 or 80 different organizations that has just popped up.  This is just people-to-people kind of groups with names like Hi from the Other Side, or Living Room Conversations, or Read Across the Aisle.  These are all groups that are trying to get Left and Right together to see if they can find common ground in respectful ways.  I think we can do it.   It’s also something I’d like to see grow through the schools, through churches, unions (in the places where we still have them), to counter the divisive forces which are growing in this culture.

I had somebody from Lake Charles who was in the book.  She was a single mom with her two kids.  They were guests here in Berkeley, and we had a living room conversation here.  The last night, she said, “You know, I’m going to start a living room conversation back in Lake Charles.”  So it can be done.

So, what’s your next project?  What’re you working on now?

Well, I’m still dealing with the consequences, the aftermath of this book.  I’m still giving a lot of talks.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_I bet you got a lot of phone calls on November 9th, didn’t you?

Yes, exactly.  I did, and I’m still getting them, and actually talking to a number of church groups.  And people will say, “What do we do?”  So, I have some answers for that and some suggestions.  One of them is see if we can re-establish channels across these divides, because we’re living in a different economic geography these days.

The have and have-nots of globalization.  I think that underlies some of this Blue/Red divide, so that you have people in the South, people on the coasts, and each facing different economic fates.  I’m living in the San Francisco Bay area.  It’s a boom town.  It’s like a gold rush, and they can’t see problems, don’t feel a sense of decline, don’t fear for their fate.  They have problems, but it’s not systemic or global from their vantage point.  But in the rural hinterland, it feels very different.

Yeah, the West Coast and the Northeast Corridor seem farther and farther away from here [Virginia’s Eastern Shore].  The realities are so different.  That whole thing that you point out in the book of people looking at the success of economically successful areas, and feeling like that’s not a narrative for them anymore, is certainly true.

Right.  Right.

Do you see yourself as an advocate for the bridge, or do you see yourself as the self-described liberal that you are—a disciple for that cause?  Or both?

I’m focusing on bridging, very definitely.  I see three pillars of activism that I’d like to see engaged.  One is the defense of democracy and the very principle of checks and balances, an independent judiciary and press.  I think that’s pillar one, and we ought to do everything we can to defend those.  I do feel they’re being challenged now.  I do think that’s the first order of business.

The second pillar would be to totally renovate the platform of the Democratic party, which I think does not really acknowledge or address the anxieties of the people up to now.  I’m very critical of Democratic party.  That’s the second thing we need to do.

The third is to reach across the aisle.  We’ve got friends on the other side and out there, many values we share in common, and issues that we can find common ground on.  I think it’s important to search them out.  So, I’m really focussed on that third pillar, but I see it all as part of what we need as a coordinated effort.

I have been talking to some people that are anarchists here.  They’re violent and they’re terrible.  They’re giving us a huge black eye here in Berkeley.  I don’t know why they’re doing this, setting fires and stuff.  I’m appalled by it.  But there’s a woman who came up to me after I denounced violence at one talk, which I do routinely around here.  She said, “Oh, I have some friends through Facebook.  Would you like to meet them?”  The Black Bloc, they’re called.

I took a moment, thinking, “These are the last people I want to meet.”  And then thought, “No, they’re the first people.”  Yes, I would like to get to know them.  So, that’s another thing that I’m doing.  I’m trying to get them to not be violent.

Well, you’re a brave adventurer.  I’m really grateful for your willingness to bring us along with you in your writing.  So, thanks for the time.